He’s a martial artist, physicist and engineer with enhanced physical abilities, high-tech weapons, and incredible resources. He’s T’Challa of the Panther Tribe of Wakanda, one of a dynasty of heroes who are each called Black Panther. Played by Chadwick Boseman, he makes his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Captain America: Civil War and will headline his own movie in 2018.
So who is this guy and what’s his role in the Marvel comic book universe? Read on and find out!
Update (Feb. 2018): For those getting ready for the Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther film, here's Black Panther, explained
Months before the Black Panther Party officially formed, T’Challa was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in 1966. Though there had been black heroes in comics before, T’Challa was the first black superhero in mainstream comics. He is the king of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that had never been conquered or successfully invaded by outside forces. After proving he can fight the Fantastic Four to a standstill (with help from impressive traps he set up), T’Challa explains himself and his country in Fantastic Four #53.
he can run over 50 mph, heal from wounds that would kill normal folks, and even lift a couple of tons if he needs to
For years, Wakanda has been isolated, ruled by the Panther tribe and its long line of leaders who all adopt the mantle of the spiritual champion known as the Black Panther. Each leader of Wakanda pledges not only to protect their people but also the "Great Mound" of vibranium, an incredibly durable and resilient ore (later revealed to have fallen from space) that absorbs kinetic energy and sound.
When T’Challa is still a kid, his father T’Chaka is murdered by the villain Klaw, "master of sound" (later given the real name of Ulysses Klaue), who wants vibranium so he can make new war technology. After attacking Klaw and shattering all the bones in the villain’s right hand, young T’Challa spends the next several years outside of Wakanda, training his genius mind at great universities. On returning home, he undergoes leadership trials, eats a heart-shaped herb, and makes contact with Bast, the panther god his tribe worships. Deemed worthy, T’Challa gains the role and powers of the Black Panther. He exports vibranium under strict guidelines and develops many technology patents, making his country (and himself) not only wealthy but more advanced in technology than the U.S. Yet, alongside its development, Wakanda maintains its cultural traditions.
So, what does the role of the Black Panther mean? Along with being leader of his people, as well as high priest, T’Challa is originally said to have superhuman senses (allowing him to track prey and act as a human lie detector like Daredevil) while the rest of his physical traits are enhanced to the "peak" of human capability, putting him on the same level as Captain America. Later comics determine that the Black Panther’s abilities operate on a superhuman level, so he can run over 50 mph, heal from wounds that would kill normal folks, and even lift a couple of tons if he needs to (which is low on the Marvel superhuman strength scale, but still more impressive than you, so don’t sass him).
All of this makes the Black Panther a pretty impressive guy. Over the years, he and Wakanda develop into major players across the Marvel Universe. When Captain America decides to leave the Avengers for a while, he nominates the Black Panther to take his place, and the two come to regard each other as brothers in arms. Furthering their connection, readers learn years later that Cap’s shield is actually made from a unique vibranium-iron alloy. In flashbacks to WW II, we see the Black Panther of that time and Captain America successfully fight off an attempted Nazi invasion of Wakanda, after which Cap is given a sample of Wakanda’s sacred ore as a gift that only he can use. It’s also T’Challa who makes a set of techno-wings for Sam Wilson, the hero called Falcon. Years later, it’s also established that when they were teenagers, T’Challa and Ororo Munroe (Storm of the X-Men) had a romance.
To distance the hero from the Black Panther Party, Marvel altered T’Challa’s codename to simply Panther for a while, and then to Black Leopard (which kind of works since African and Asian panthers are, indeed, black leopards). But later on, Marvel decided "frak it" and made his name Black Panther again.
Soon after he joined the Avengers, T’Challa adopted a cover identity as "Luke Charles" and worked as a public school teacher. Some dug this storyline as a way for the Black Panther to engage more with African-American youth in NYC, while others have criticized it for taking T’Challa away from his regal trappings. He later dropped this identity and finally got his own solo stories in the pages of an the already existing anthology series Jungle Action, featuring a stories of heroes who operate in various jungles.
T’Challa is not just a superhero but a scientist and strategist who plans several moves ahead of his enemies
In Jungle Action, Don McGregor became the first writer to handle the Black Panther as a solo character rather than as a guest-star or part of an ensemble. With a variety of artists, McGregor’s stories carved out a character who does his best to make his nation a power to be respected, but also wonders if he’s diminishing the culture of his land in the process. Several times, he realizes some of his own people believe he has abandoned them for the Avengers and that he is now less than a true Wakandan, having been infected by American culture and attitudes (and he fears they might be right). At the same time, we meet Eric Killmonger (and you thought "Doom" and "Kilgrave" were dramatic last names), who becomes a major arch-enemy to T’Challa and a constant rival for rulership of Wakanda, determined to eliminate the "white colonialist influences" that he believes have contaminated his home.
McGregor wrote the issues of Jungle Action as chapters of one large story, much like how many creators tackle superhero comics today. For this reason, some consider McGregor’s first story arc "Panther’s Rage" (Jungle Action #6-18) to be Marvel’s first graphic novel. The follow up story arc "Panther VS. the Klan" (Jungle Action #19-22 and #24) was exactly what the title promised and was shockingly candid in its discussion of racism and violent bigotry in the U.S. It was very popular with many college students reading in the mid-1970s, but sales still weren’t great, which led to the end of Jungle Action and a new short-lived Black Panther series initially led by comic book legend Jack Kirby who predictably (and rather gloriously) threw T’Challa into bizarre situations, such as encountering King Solomon’s frogs, which can bend spacetime. Because comics.
After his solo series ended again, the Panther had a couple more mini-series and made various cameos and guest appearances in the Marvel Universe, helping out the Avengers on different cases, investigating the corrupt Roxxon corporation, battling Ultron with Iron Man and Spider-Man, and doing his best to make sure Wakanda had a strong role in the world.
In 1998, the character experienced a renaissance when he got his own series again, now under writer Christopher Priest and artist Mark Texeira. The series emphasized T’Challa as not just a superhero but a scientist and strategist who planned several moves ahead of his enemies and was perfectly willing to manipulate friends and allies if it ensured an efficient plan. The same series introduced a new supporting cast for T’Challa: his adopted brother Hunter (who becomes the villainous White Wolf), his apprentice Queen Divine Justice, his all-female team of bodyguards the Dora Milaje (pronounced "dora meh-LAH-shay"), and his comic relief sidekick, State Department attorney Everett K. Ross (who will appear in Captain America: Civil War, played by Martin Freeman).
During the first year of the series, T’Challa is forced by enemies and political circumstances to abdicate his throne (temporarily), and reveals soon afterward that he originally joined the Avengers in order to spy on the heroes and see if they posed a threat to Wakanda. This revelation forced the Panther’s former teammates to look at him in a different light, and resulted in a tense relationship with Tony Stark for some time, which just got worse during Marvel’s Civil War.
as 'King of the Dead,' T’Challa is more powerful and has access to the knowledge of all Black Panthers before him
Despite the shot in the arm it gave T’Challa’s character and popularity, Black Panther sales later fell and Marvel decided to retool the character in an attempt to make him more relevant to readers. T’Challa suffers a bout of mental instability and hides in New York, abandoning his role and costume of Black Panther. In issue #50, Christopher Priest and Dan Fraga introduce the new star of the series, Kasper Cole, a New York cop who uses T’Challa’s abandoned gear to become a vigilante. This new premise didn’t win over enough readers, so the series ended thirteen issues later with T’Challa resuming his old role while Kasper Cole takes on the identity of White Tiger (one of several Marvel heroes to use that name). Kasper starred in the short lived series The Crew (2003-2004), but hasn’t been seen since.
2005 saw filmmaker Reginald Hudlin tackle a new Black Panther series alongside artist John Romita Jr. Their successful run focused on the culture and political power of Wakanda, introduced T’Challa’s sister Shuri, and featured the wedding of T’Challa and the X-Man Storm. The new power couple of Marvel Comics do their best to help Captain America’s team of rogue heroes during Marvel’s Civil War crossover, concerned that America’s new Superhuman Registration Act may lead to registered U.S. super-agents being used as living weapons against other countries. Tony Stark’s pro-registration forces wind up destroying the Wakandan embassy, which certainly does not help convince T’Challa that his side is in the right. After Civil War’s conclusion, the Fantastic Four HQ serves as a temporary home for the Wakandan embassy and during this time Black Panther and Storm lead the team while members Reed and Sue Richards take some time off.
The Black Panther series relaunched in 2009 with an attack on T’Challa that leaves him comatose. Storm nominates his sister Shuri to take on the mantle and powers of Black Panther, which also puts her in charge as princess regent even after her brother recovers. Hudlin left the series right after that, with Jonathan Maberry taking over as writer. Our heroes learn that Dr. Doom attacked T’Challa and is secretly aiding a coup in Wakanda, which leads into the DoomWar mini-series by Maberry and Romita. T’Challa, now using alchemy and magic to make up for his lost Panther abilities, joins with Shuri to reclaim their country. Doom gains control of Wakanda’s vibranium and uses it to enhance his power, but his plans for world domination come to a halt when T’Challa finds a way to render all of the ore inert. Doom loses, but Wakanda’s economy and power is now in peril.
While Shuri continues as the official Black Panther, former king T’Challa becomes protector of Hell’s Kitchen in NYC for a short while, since Daredevil needs some me-time after being temporarily possessed by a demon during the crossover Shadowland. It happens, people, don’t judge.
Just like during his first run with the Avengers, T’Challa assumes a cover identity for his Hell’s Kitchen life: Mr. Okonkwo, immigrant from the Congo and manager of the Devil's Kitchen diner. Because what king doesn’t secretly want to run a diner? This new life of T’Challa’s doesn’t last and soon afterward he again encounters the panther god Bast. The hero says he wants his powers back, but also doesn’t want to take away the Black Panther role and abilities from Shuri. Bast decides that T’Challa is now her champion rather than Wakanda’s and appoints him ruler of Necropolis, the Wakandan "city of the dead" where all former Black Panthers are laid to rest. Now, as "King of the Dead," T’Challa is more powerful and has access to the knowledge of all Black Panthers before him.
Soon after, in the crossover Avengers Vs. X-Men, T’Challa and Ororo wind up on opposite sides, each helping the team with which they once served. During the crossover, Storm discards her wedding ring as she sides with her former teammates, and the Atlantean King Namor (at that time associated with the X-Men) attacks Wakanda. The X-Men are thus labeled enemies of the country. Storm later returns to make amends with her husband and the people of Wakanda, only to be told by T’Challa that he’s already annulled their marriage under Wakandan law. So much for that power couple.
After breaking up with Storm and asking her not to date Wolverine (seriously, that happened, and she did), Black Panther joins the new Illuminati, a group of Marvel heroes (including Namor) that regularly meets in Necropolis and secretly uses methods other heroes might not condone in order to protect Earth from cosmic level destruction. When T’Challa refuses to murder an entire parallel Earth just to save his own world, the spirit of his father condemns him and he loses his powers as King of the Dead. Meanwhile, Wakanda and Atlantis go to war, leading to T’Challa’s temporary exile due to his secret alliance with Namor via the Illuminati. Later still, Namor takes revenge on Wakanda by directing the forces of the villain Thanos against the country. Shuri later dies in battle against Thanos’ agent Proxima Midnight, relinquishing the Black Panther mantle and abilities to T’Challa before she meets her end.
All this stuff with parallel Earths, the Illuminati and the Cabal leads into the 2015 crossover Secret Wars, where time and space just all go haywire for a while. During the story’s conclusion, the Marvel Universe is restored (now with a couple of minor changes) and the Black Panther uses the Reality Stone (one of those pesky Infinity Stones that keep popping up in the Marvel movies) to restore Wakanda and the Great Mound of vibranium ore.
Wakanda is once again the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, but violence and crime are higher than they’ve been in years, and the citizens are divided between those loyal to T’Challa, and those who consider him a weak "orphan king" and want revolution. T’Challa divides his time between trying to bring stability to his country and acting as a member of the new Ultimates team, organized to solve cosmic-level threats to Earth.
So that brings us up to speed on the comic book incarnation. Of course, we can already figure out a few differences between this and the version who will appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: Civil War will not involve anything called the Superhuman Registration Act. Instead, the story involves the Sokovia Accords, a legal document internationally ratified and intended to impose order and accountability on superhumans and vigilantes with enhanced abilities and equipment. The name comes from the fictional country Sokovia — the one that is basically laid to waste during the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Speaking of Ultron, did you catch Andy Serkis playing Ulysses Klaue, a dude who really wants vibranium, was literally branded a criminal in Wakanda and then loses a hand before running away? You can bet we’ll see him again in the films. And while comic book T’Challa opposed Registration and openly battled Tony Stark during Civil War, movie T’Challa seems to be a member of Team Iron Man, which indicates that he supports the Sokovia Accords and is working against Captain America’s group. He also really seems to enjoy hitting Bucky, based on those previews. Did Bucky maybe kill a former high-ranking Wakandan during his time as a brainwashed assassin? Does T’Challa just not like his long hair? Or is this a long con? The Black Panther is known for being manipulative at times, after all.
You can follow T’Challa’s latest adventures in The Ultimates, by the creative team of Al Ewing, Kenneth Rocafort and Dan Brown, as well as the new Black Panther ongoing series by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin. Now go enjoy T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War!